It’s a sound everyone dreads — that ear-piercing shriek that sometimes happens when you press your brake pedal. Not only is it annoying, but it can also be a sign of a bigger problem. What are some of the common causes of noisy brakes?

Let’s look at the four most common brake noises and what they mean.

What are the common brake noises and what do they mean?

1. Grinding

Brake grinding might not be as common as some other sounds, but it can signify a much larger problem. Brakes use hydraulic pressure to push the brake pads or shoes against metal rotors or drums to slow the tires and, thus, your car.

Grinding brake noises can indicate that the brake pads or shoes have worn completely away, and all that remains is the metal backing of the pad or shoe pressing against the metal of the brake rotor. Not only can this issue make it more difficult for the brakes to stop the car, but it can also cause damage to the other parts of the brake system, turning a relatively inexpensive job into a large and costly one.

Prevent this problem before it ever happens by replacing your brake pads before they are completely worn out. Most brake pads are good for about 50,000 miles of driving. Some need to be replaced after 25,000 miles, while others can go as far as 70,000 miles. Consult your local mechanic to learn more about the brake pads on your vehicle.

2. Thumping

If pressing the brakes results in a thumping noise, it could be a sign of a couple of different problems, depending on where the thumping is coming from.

Older cars — and even some newer ones — have drum brakes in the rear end. A thumping brake noise in the rear of the vehicle could indicate a problem with the rear brake drums, but this problem can be difficult to diagnose. If your rear brakes are thumping, it’s important to find an auto mechanic and have your brakes examined by a professional. Thumping from the front brakes can indicate rotor damage.

3. Squeaking or squealing

Squeaking and squealing brakes are probably one of the most common complaints regarding brake noise. If your brakes are squeaking and squealing, you’ll want to get them inspected and repaired by a professional. With so many possible problems, you could spend a lot of money or time trying to figure out exactly what’s causing the noise. Squeaking or squealing brake noises may be caused by:

  • Worn brake pads
  • Improperly cut brake rotors
  • Broken anti-rattle clips
  • Incorrectly installed insulation shims
  • Glazed brake pads

If you just had your brakes serviced and they’re squeaking, take your car back to the shop and ask them to fix it. Brand-new brakes should not squeak or squeal, so there’s a problem there that they need to address.

4. Scraping

Scraping is one of the few common brake noises on this list that is only sometimes a sign of a bigger problem. It could be as simple as having a rock stuck in your brake rotor. If you’re hearing scraping all the time, whether pressing the brakes or not, take your car down to your local tire shop and have them look to see if something is rubbing against the brake rotor while driving. While it isn’t a huge problem, a rock or other piece of debris rubbing against your brake rotor could cause damage over time, so it’s important to get it checked out.

What to do if you hear a noise when braking

Noisy brakes are annoying, but easy to get fixed. Many of these issues can be avoided by simply having your brake pads replaced regularly instead of waiting for them to start squeaking or causing problems. Sometimes noises can signify problems with your struts or shocks or that you need new brakes, so be sure you know the difference.

When it comes to keeping your car running smoothly, a regular car maintenance schedule can also help.